January 21

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Matthew 7:7-14; Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 18:7-19; Genesis 38

The story in Genesis 38 has given us the word ‘onanism’ in English—a synonym for masturbation. Some have taken this passage as biblical condemnation of birth control in general. However, closer examination of the text reveals numerous complexities and some important principles in using the Bible to develop ethical guidelines.

First of all, we must seek to understand what the text actually states. In this incident, Onan is condemned because he, literally, spilled his seed on the ground. Interpreters note that this could have occurred in different ways: due to masturbation, as a result of coitus interuptus (withdrawing from intercourse before ejaculation), or during a pagan ritual. Other religions in the region literally poured semen on the ground as part of fertility rites. Which Onan did is unclear, making it difficult to apply this passage to current practices.

A second general principle when applying biblical passages is to examine the purpose of the passage in its original context. Here we see that the focus of Genesis 38 is not on sexual ethics. The ‘hero’ of the story, Tamar, disguises herself as a prostitute so that her father-in-law commits adultery with her and she gets pregnant. Adultery and prostitution are clearly denounced in the Bible, as exemplified by the way Tamar was almost executed when it was discovered that she had ‘played the harlot’ (38:24; cf. Deut 23:17-18).

What is being taught here, though, is not God’s view of sexual right and wrong. Instead, the theme is the importance of the line of Judah in leading to the Messiah (Psalm 78:59-72). The death of Er put the line of Judah in jeopardy and activated levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5). In Israel and surrounding cultures a brother was required to marry his brother’s widow and preserve his name through their children. The word ‘whenever’ (v. 9) tells us that Onan slept with his brother’s wife several times, each time spilling his semen ‘in order not to give offspring to his brother.’ Thus Onan’s sin was his refusal to carry out his levirate duty. We should also note that ‘wet dreams’ are not treated as terrible sins in the Old Testament (Leviticus 15:16-18).

Genesis 38 teaches that God can use even human deceptiveness and sin to bring about his will. The line of Judah was preserved through the prostitution and adultery that gave birth to Perez, the ancestor of David and Jesus (Matthew 1). Thus God’s will is accomplished in unexpected ways in spite of human sin and weakness.

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